Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘unfriend’

a new age (21st century)

by David Crystal

In 2009 the New Oxford American Dictionary chose unfriend as its Word of the Year. It meant ‘to remove someone from a list of contacts on a social networking site such as Facebook’. A minor controversy followed. Some argued that the verb should be defriend. But the use of un- was already well established in the terminology of reversing computer actions, with undo, unerase, undelete, unbold and many more. As a New York Times article said in 2009 (15th September), we are living in an ‘Age of Undoing’.

Unfriend also probably appealed because it feels more English, as evidenced by a history of earlier uses dating from the 16th century. Antonio describes Sebastian as ‘unguided and unfriended’ in Twelfth Night (III.iii.10). A noun (an unfriend) occurs as early as the 13th century. And in the 19th century, a member of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) could describe a non-member as an unfriend. Defriend, by contrast, had no such history, so it has been slower to take root. But both unfriend and defriend are found in the social networking world now, with unfriend almost twice as popular in 2010.

Prefixes and suffixes continue to make their presence felt in word coinages of the new millennium. We find ecogloom (‘depression about environmental progress’) and bargainous (‘relatively cheap’), overthink (‘think about something too much’) and underbudget (‘underestimate costs’), catastrophise (‘present a situation as worse than it is’) and therapise (‘provide therapy’). As technology allows us to investigate smaller and smaller entities, previously obscure prefixes such as nano- have become widespread. It is, according to some commentators, a nano-age, with a nanocosm containing nanomachines using nanomaterials on a nanoscale, and investigated by nanoscientists. Virtually any word, it seems, is going to be prefixed by nano- sooner or later.

Nano- has left micro- a long way behind, though micro- did receive a boost with the advent of micromessaging. The posting of very short entries on a blog came to be called microblogging, and when Twitter arrived in 2006, with its 140-character message limitation, it was soon being described as a microblogging site. There are microbooks, micromovies, micromusicals and microapps now. Speaking as a lexical coolhunter (a 1990s’ marketing term: ‘a monitor of cultural trends’), I wouldn’t write it off yet.

This is the final extract in a series of five taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Scroll back for ‘OK’, ‘gaggle’, ‘bodgery’ and ‘mead’.

Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘OK’

debatable origins (19th century)

by David Crystal

The little word OK has a linguistic reputation that belies its size. Over a thousand words in English have an etymology which, in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘origin unknown’. Nobody knows where bloke comes from, or condom, gimmick, nifty, pimp, pooch, queasy, rogue or skiffle. Theories abound, of course, some very ingenious. Did nifty arise as a shortened form of magnificat? Is gimmick from magicians’ use of gimac, an anagram of magic? But no word has attracted more theorising than OK.

Is it from Scottish och aye? Is it from French au quai (the goods – or girls – have safely arrived ‘at the quayside’)? Is it from Choctaw oke (‘it is’)? Is it from Wolof okeh (‘yes’). Is it from Latin omnis korrecta (‘all correct’, sometimes written by schoolmasters on homework)? Is it from the Greek letters omega + khi (an early incantation against fleas)? Is it from Obediah Kelly, a railwayman who used to authorise freight movements with his initials? There are dozens more.

Thanks to a fine piece of research by American lexicographer Allan Walker Read, we now know that all of these theories are wrong. It first appeared in 1839 in a Boston newspaper, where there was a vogue for inventing humorous abbreviations using initial letters – an early instance of a language game. KY, for example, would be used for the phrase know yuse (= ‘no use’). And OK comes from oll korrect, a humorous adaptation of the words all correct.

Why didn’t it disappear, like the other abbreviations did? Because in 1840 it came to be associated with a totally different use – as a slogan during the 1840 US elections. It was the shortened form of Old Kinderhook, the nickname of President Martin Van Buren – Kinderhook being the name of his hometown in New York State. There was a Democratic OK Club, with its members called the OKs, and they had a war-cry: ‘Down with the Whigs, boys, OK!’

The combination of the two usages, in a very short space of time, resulted in the rapid use of OK as an interjection meaning ‘all right, good’. Other senses soon developed, such as ‘fashionable’ (the OK thing to do) and ‘trustworthy’ (He’s OK). A century on, and the word was still developing new uses, such as ‘comfortable’ (Are you OK with that?). In British English, it received huge grafitti exposure during the 1970s, when the fad of saying that someone or something rules OK (= ‘is pre-eminent’) was seen on walls all over the country.

But OK has a linguistic reputation for a second reason: the number of variant forms it has accumulated over the years. There are variant spellings (okay, okey), a shortened version (‘kay), and several expanded forms (okie-dokie, okey doke(s), okeycokey). Today, I suppose it’s the basic OK form which is most often encountered, thanks to the dialogue button on our computer screens. Press OK and something will happen!

This is the fourth in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘unfriend’. Scroll back for ‘gaggle’, ‘bodgery’ and ‘mead’.

Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘gaggle’

a collective noun (15th century)

by David Crystal

I think it went something like this. A group of monks, wondering how to pass the time on a cold, dark winter’s evening in the 15th century, invent a word game. ‘Let’s think up words for groups of things’, says one. ‘What do we call a group of cows?’ ‘A herd.’ ‘A group of bees?’ ‘A swarm.’ A group of geese?’ ‘A flock’. Words like herd and swarm had been in the language since Anglo-Saxon times. There weren’t many of them, and the few that were available had been used for all kinds of things. People talked about a herd of cranes, wrens, deer, swans, gnats and more. The game must have palled after a while.

Then someone had a bright idea. ‘Let’s think up better words. What would be a really clever way of talking about geese?’ ‘A cackle of geese, maybe?’ ‘Not bad, but that better suits hens. What about gaggle? It goes better with goose because of the g’s? What do you all think?’ ‘Agreed? Write it down, Brother John.’

And Brother John did. Or maybe it was Dame Juliana. She was the prioress of Sopwell nunnery, near St Albans in Hertfordshire, and her name appears in a collection of material on hunting, heraldry and folklore that was printed in 1486, called The Book of St Albans. It’s one of the first English printed books, and it contains a list of some 200 collective nouns. Several are traditional expressions, such as herd. But many seem to be inventions. This is where we find a muster of peacocks, an unkindness of ravens, a watch of nightingales, a charm of goldfinches and dozens more. But the list goes well beyond animals. We find a diligence of messengers, a superfluity of nuns, a doctrine of doctors, a sentence of judges, a prudence of vicars and a non-patience of wives. And people tried out fresh combinations. ‘A gaggle of geese?’ ‘What about a gaggle of women?’ ‘Write that down, Brother John’. He did. A gaggle of women is recorded in a book written around 1470. An early sexist joke.

Why do I think this is the sort of thing that happened? Because this is a game people still happily play today, and human nature hasn’t changed that much in 500 years. A great deal of entertainment can be derived from thinking up the funniest way of describing a group of ‘X’ – where X can be anything from dog handlers to dentists. What’s the best collective noun for politicians, or undertakers, or linguists? Competitions have produced some fine examples. I made my own collection a few years ago, and found many that deserve prizes. Here’s a top ten:

An absence of waiters
A rash of dermatologists
A shoulder of agony aunts
A clutch of car mechanics
A vat of chancellors
A bout of estimates
A lot of auctioneers
A mass of priests
A whored of prostitutes
A depression of weather forecasters
An exces’s of apostrophes

And still they come. In recent times I’ve encountered a crash of software, an annoyance of mobile phones and a bond of British secret agents.

This is the third in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘OK’. Scroll back for ‘bodgery’ and ‘mead’.

Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘bodgery’

word-coiners (16th century)

by David Crystal

The history of English contains thousands of words that never made it – coinages invented by individual writers that simply didn’t catch on. There is just a single instance of bodgery recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary. It is from the playwright Thomas Nashe, who used it in 1599. It means ‘bungling, botched work’.

Some 16th-century poets and playwrights seem almost to have coined words for a living. Nashe was second only to Shakespeare in the number of words whose first recorded use is found in his writing – nearly 800 – and several did become a permanent part of the language, such as conundrum, grandiloquent, multifarious and balderdash. Nashe also coined a word which would one day receive new life in science fiction: earthling.

But, like Shakespeare, quite a few of his coinages evidently didn’t appeal. Either they were never used by anyone else, as far as we know, or they had a brief flurry of usage before being quietly dropped. Probably no tears would ever be shed over the loss of collachrymate (‘accompanied by weeping’) or baggagery (‘worthless rabble’). But I rather regret that bodgery disappeared (though bodge and bodger are still heard in some dialects), along with tongueman (‘good speaker’) and chatmate (‘gossip’).

The list of words that never made it has a surreal quality. From Philip Sidney we have disinvite, hangworthy, rageful and triflingness. From Edmund Spenser, disadventurous, jolliment, schoolery and adviceful. From John Marston, cockall (‘perfection’), bespirtle (‘to spot with vice’), fubbery (‘cheating’) and glibbery (‘slippery’) – creations Lewis Carroll would have been proud of. Sometimes it’s impossible to say why one word stayed and another didn’t. Why did Spenser’s tuneful catch on but his gazeful did not?

However, you can never tell what will happen. Musicry was coined by John Marston, and nobody used it after him – until 1961, when a writer revived it for a book on the arts. Nashe’s chatmate is currently the only instance of its use in the Oxford English Dictionary. But that will soon change, for in the world of chatrooms, social networking and internet dating, what do we find? Chatmates. There’s hope for bodgery yet.

This is the second in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘gaggle’. Scroll back for ‘mead’.

Etymology Monday: David Crystal on the word ‘mead’

a window into history (9th century)

by David Crystal

Today we think of mead as a rather exotic alcoholic drink, made by fermenting a mixture of honey and water. In early history it was the alcoholic beverage of choice throughout ancient Europe, Asia and Africa. Some think it was the first fermented drink. It makes frequent appearances in the Germanic folk-tales of the first millennium and repeatedly appears in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, such as the epic poem Beowulf.

Mead was more than just a drink. It was a symbol of power. If you had the time and luxury to sit around drinking mead, then all must have been well in your land. And conversely: if you didn’t have that opportunity, things must have been going badly. At the very beginning of Beowulf we are told that the king, Scyld Scefing, ‘from bands of enemies, from many tribes, took away mead-benches’. That settles it. They would have been victories indeed!

So it’s not surprising to find that there was a large vocabulary of mead-words in Old English. Through this single word we obtain a considerable insight into Anglo-Saxon culture and society. A settlement might actually be called a medu-burh – a place renowned for its mead-drinkers. Any warrior living there would make nightly visits to the medu-heall (‘mead-hall’) or medu-seld (‘mead-house’) – the equivalent of the modern city hall – where his leader would be holding court and feasting. How would he get there? By walking along a medu-stig (‘path to the mead-hall’) through the medu-wang (‘land surrounding the meadhall’). All roads, it seemed, led to mead.

Once inside the hall, the vocabulary of mead was all around him. The place to sit was called a medu-benc (‘mead-bench’) or medu-setl (‘mead-seat’). He and his fellow-warriors would engage in a lengthy bout of medu-drinc (‘mead-drinking’), taking a medu-scenc (‘draught of mead’) from a medu-full (‘mead-cup’). He would soon get medu-gal (‘enthused by the mead’) and experience medu-dream (‘mead-joy’). If he had too much, he would end up medu-werig (‘mead-weary’).

It’s fascinating to see a word being used in this way, permeating so many aspects of social behaviour. And it’s a feature of English which we continue to exploit today. Whisky drinkers might buy a whisky bottle from a whisky shop or (in olden days) a whisky house, and pour a whisky peg from a whisky decanter into a whisky glass. They might become whisky sodden or develop a whisky voice. On the other hand, we don’t extend the usage as much as the Anglo-Saxons did. We don’t usually talk about whisky seats, whisky paths or whisky joy.

In the Middle Ages, mead changed its social standing in Britain. Wine became the drink of choice among the upper class, leaving mead, along with ale and cider, as the drink of the poor. Mead never died out as a drink, but it took second place to ale and cider, which were much easier to brew. Ale is used fifteen times in Shakespeare; mead not once.

Gradually, mead came back into fashion, sometimes developing new uses and shifting its meaning. In the 17th century it could be used to mean any sweet drink. Robert Burton used the term mead-inn in 1632, referring particularly to Russian drinking practices – a tavern where mead was the main drink sold. People in Britain in the 18th century drank mead wine.

In the USA, the name took on a different sense, referring to various sweet carbonated drinks sometimes flavoured with sarsaparilla. Americans continue to be strongly interested in mead today. There’s an International Mead Association, and a festival is held every year in Colorado. New meadwords continue to be coined. The occasion is a meadfest, and many meaderies and mead-lovers attend. There are meadmaking courses, meadings (tasting parties) and if you want you can read a meadzine.

But beware: don’t mix up the ‘drink’ sense of the word mead with another sense which is recorded in English from a few centuries later – a shortened form of meadow. When you see such words as mead-flowermeadsweet and meadwort, these are all meadow flowers. They have nothing to do with the drink. And if you know a road called the Meadway, that’s the ‘meadow’ sense too, and a later development. It’s mead in the ‘drink’ sense that fascinates linguists, because it’s part of a window into the origins of English.

This is the first in a series of five extracts taken from The Story of English in 100 Words by David Crystal, published by Profile and distributed by Allen & Unwin, $29.99, out now. Come back next Monday for ‘bodgery’.